It seems ridiculous that anything less than a trophy would be seen as abject failure but anyone who saw the faces of the Australian players after their loss to India in the Women's World Cup semi-final was left in no doubt how much this hurt. Australia's women have been so dominant in the sport that the thought of them not being in a final seems almost inconceivable. They must now return home to the doubly grim prospect of a Pat Howard-led dissection of their performance and unemployment, thanks to the ongoing MoU dispute with Cricket Australia (although that does beg the question of how a performance review happens without an employer).
England will arrive for the Ashes series - comprising of one Test, three ODIs and three T20Is - in October, possibly as World Champions. Assuming the pay dispute is resolved in time for the series to take place there are a several questions Australia will perhaps look to consider before a home campaign they will be desperate to win.
There have been a number of brilliant performances by players from other countries but few would argue that Meg Lanning isn't the best female batsman in the world. Her average of 54.52 in ODIs at a strike-rate of 95.97 is far ahead of the competition. Her shoulder injury cost her two matches in the World Cup and while Australia still won both of them, against Pakistan and South Africa, her absence left a hole that stronger teams may have been able to exploit. There have been times in the field and when batting - notably her dismissals by England spinner Alex Hartley and India seamer Jhulan Goswami - when her movement may have been somewhat hampered. How to handle Lanning's shoulder injury in the months leading into the Ashes could be hugely significant. Does she undergo intensive treatment and rehabilitation, possibly even surgery? Or push through until after the series and risk making the injury worse? Lanning at 80% fitness is still probably better than most but to ask her to get through a four-day Test with such an injury followed by another six days of match play should be carefully considered.
Lack of bowling options
The fact Elyse Villani was called on to bowl several times throughout the World Cup including an over in the semi-final - in which she took one wicket but went for 19 runs in the second Powerplay - must be a concern for Australia. Villani is a part-time medium pacer at best. Australia's bowling line up has simply not contained the same combination of punch and stinginess as previous attacks. Without Rene Farrell and Sarah Coyte there was a lack of international experience in the seam-bowling stocks. Sarah Aley was probably unlucky to be overlooked and, with the spinners being brutalized by Harmanpreet Kaur, Lanning only had limited overs to use from Ellyse Perry and Megan Schutt. Perry has bowled well in this tournament, is a huge asset in any judge's estimation and would undoubtedly get into the side based purely on her bowling, but she is continuing on the trajectory of becoming more of a batting allrounder (she finished the semi-final as the tournament's highest run-scorer) than the strike bowler. In the last World Cup she took three wickets bowling virtually on one leg to set up Australia's victory. In the semi-final loss to India, she took none. The best batsmen in the world are perhaps learning how to face her. The make-up of Australia's attack across all three formats is bound to be high up on the list of topics in Howard's review.
Flexibility in the batting line up
Australia bat deep. That is the mantra. And there is no doubt any side containing Ashleigh Gardner - who bats at No. 3 for the Sydney Sixers in the Women's Big Bash League - coming in as low as No. 9 has the ability to score big at the back end. This was evident when Australia were chasing England's total of 259 in their three-run loss in the group stage. But, perhaps because of a culture in which players have to earn their stripes, Gardner wasn't pushed up the order. A similar observation could be made about the semi-final. Villani has opened many times for Australia and is in the side for her quick scoring and powerful hitting. Incumbent openers Beth Mooney and Nicole Bolton have generally given Australia solid but somewhat conservative starts. That's often served them well, particularly when Lanning has come in and accelerated, but in the semi-final they were faced with a target of 282 in 42 overs. If ever a faster start would have served them, it was when chasing their highest target against India. But the noted fast ODI scorers are kept in reserve below Lanning. And scoreboard pressure took its toll.
It could be argued that it's turning a positive into a negative to bring up Lanning and Perry's incredibly consistent partnership. They give a solidity to Australia's batting line up that would be the envy of any other team. They are also complementary. Lanning generally scores quickly from ball one, is aggressive and innovative, and can convert good starts to big scores with startling regularity. Perry often starts conservatively, likes to play with traditionally good technique and score in the V, collects a half-century and increases her run-rate as her innings progresses. They also follow two openers, in Mooney and Bolton, who tend to build slowly. Mithali Raj pointed out after India's semi-final victory that if you break open Australia's top order, it can expose a potential fragility if they need to chase a big score, and there is a growing feeling among those that watch the game closely that the Lanning-Perry partnership papers over potential cracks. If you get two wickets early you're half a chance, if you get three - and break that partnership - then you've given yourself a real tilt at getting through the batting line up. Perhaps Australia need more batsmen spending more time at the crease - how you go about that is another problem.
Adapting to adversity and changing conditions
There were warning signs before Australia's World Cup exit. One of them screamed for attention: when Chamari Atapattu took apart Australia's bowling attack in the group game in Bristol. It was a brutal display comparable to Kaur's destructive semi-final show. The difference was that Atappatu had hardly any partners who could back up her scoring or a bowling line up to make the most of runs on the board and apply pressure. Add to that Lanning played an outstanding innings in response, scoring an unbeaten 152 (with Perry at the other end unbeaten on 39, to emphasise the earlier point) to seal victory for Australia. But when Kaur let loose in Derby, Australia had no answer; they are so used to success that plan B is rarely required, let alone plan C or D. And it could be argued that there was no reason to doubt their spinners could contain any threat. Until the semi-finals Australia's three spinners had collectively taken 27 wickets at an average of 25 and gone at 3.75 runs per over. But they were rattled and couldn't recover - "turned to custard", according to coach, Matthew Mott. When Kristen Beams lost control and wildly bowled a no-ball that landed nowhere near the pitch Kaur launched the free hit for an enormous six and pulled the following delivery menacingly for four. Australia are rarely challenged so forcefully or dominated so completely. They simply had no idea how to counterattack. England were watching and will be planning how to do the same in October.
Mind the gap
All of these questions, of course, need to be put into context. Since Australia started playing ODIs they have won an astonishing 77%. The closest team to them is England, with 59%. Such dominance is rarely seen in sport and has led to a belief - by fans as well as the administration and players - that Australia will always make the finals and Australia will nearly always win. That is a huge burden of expectation. Australia has led the way with the introduction of professionalism, the WBBL and the resources allocated to its female players. But other countries are catching up. And players from other countries, playing in the WBBL, are learning how to counter the players Australia would normally bank on to win games. Lanning lamented that Australia had failed to put their complete game together throughout the tournament. In the past that may not have mattered so much.
This is no crisis. At the end of a tournament Australia lost one game to one finalist by three runs and a second to the other finalist thanks to one of the finest ODI innings seen in the women's game. "A bloody good team," as Mott said. With a player in "red-hot form". There are more of them out there.
The gap is closing and the challenge for Australia to stay ahead of the pack is a significant one.